Entering second year, TCL program continues preparing military members for civilian work

February 2, 2014 

After a long career in the U.S. Navy, Beaufort resident Victor Wescott faced a dilemma upon retirement: how to apply his skills in military aviation to the civilian field.

Wescott had 26 years of military experience in aviation, but didn't have the Federal Aviation Administration licensing necessary to work in the field as a civilian. After moving to Beaufort, Wescott began searching for programs where he could get the necessary licensing, but they were risky, with costs around $3,000 and a success rate around 50 percent.

He found his solution through the Technical College of the Lowcountry's Transitioning Military Program.

Wescott took the program's airframe and powerplant certification course in September, passing it and getting his FAA license later that fall. Now, as an instructor at Savannah Technical College, he teaches students studying to get their FAA licenses, just as he once did.

Wescott is one of nearly 100 veterans and active-duty service members who have passed one of the three courses offered through the transitioning military program in its first year, program director Paul Merritt said. The majority of those who have passed the TCL courses have gone on to obtain federal licenses after government-administered examinations.

The Transitioning Military Program was conceived as a way to get veterans leaving Beaufort's military bases, particularly Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, to obtain civilian licensing and build a talented labor pool in the region, Merritt said. Three courses are offered: airframe and powerplant certification, a Federal Communications Commission licensing prep course, and a certified logistics technician program.

The program has done just that. Graduates of the TCL program have ended up working for Boeing in Charleston, Gulfstream in Savannah, and other firms in both cities, Merritt said. In one case, the program helped a former Marine who was going to miss out on a job promotion with Gulfstream because he wasn't licensed. Instead, the Marine passed TCL's airframe course and was picked to be on a traveling team sent to China, Merritt said.

The courses are offered free to service members thanks to a state grant, an important factor when testing fees for the courses alone can be up to $1,000, Merritt said. Many like-minded programs offered around the country are even more expensive, and typically require travel and lodging costs, program administrator Michael Weiss said.

Weiss recounted how one student in the program planned to take leave to travel to New York for a program that would've cost $5,000 just to enroll.

Charleston resident and 21-year Navy veteran Brian Barnhart, who took the airframe and powerplant course in September, said the TCL program was the only one he found that offered its courses for free.

"The course was a big help," he said. "I was on terminal leave, and I wasn't having any luck at all. All of the other courses I found were pretty expensive."

To their benefit, the TCL courses all have high success rates, with even the most challenging course -- airframe and powerplant certification -- boasting a pass rate over 70 percent, Weiss said.

Upcoming courses in each discipline are scheduled to begin over the next few months, but beyond 2014, the transitioning program's future is cloudy. Funding that makes the program free to veterans is scheduled to end after the close of the school's fiscal year, but the college's president, Richard Gough, is working to get more funding for 2015 and beyond, Merritt said.

The solution for the program's future might lie in two paid courses planned for TCL's New River campus in Bluffton. Merritt said two courses -- one FCC course in March and one airframe course in June -- will target non-veterans and charge admission.

The FCC course would cost about $500 and the airframe course about $1,800, with the latter course higher because of the higher test fee. However, larger companies such as Boeing have programs that reimburse employees who obtain their licenses, Merritt said.

Demand appears to be high in the private sector, with Weiss saying about 30 callers have inquired about a non-veteran course. Airframe and FCC courses usually have 12 students in them apiece.

"There definitely is a legitimate demand for this," Merritt said. "Even if our budget was cut, the courses would continue."

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